Are irrational voters stubborn voters?

Bryan Caplan writes:

Venezuelan policy was bad in the past for the same reason it’s really bad now: In Venezuela, bad policy is good politics because it’s popular.

We all know that Bryan blames bad policy on irrational voters,  I sometimes worry he is too quickly identifying irrationality with stubbornness.  An irrational voter might be very easy manipulated by a politician, just as many Venezuelan voters have had their incipient populism mobilized by the rhetoric of Chavez.  Were so many Cubans communist before Castro?  Of course to the extent irrationality and its content are endogenous, we must move away from a simple "blame the voters" story.

In the past Bryan has blogged that many voters are too stupid or too irrational to respond even to propaganda.  But political rhetoric sometimes works on some of the people and perhaps that is enough.  (Technical point: I doubt if the Caplan-postulated irrationality is evenly distributed along a Downsian spectrum in such a way to support quasi-dictatorial rule by the median voter.)  Irrationality is likely to make the political spectrum sufficiently complex and multi-dimensional as to have some easily manipulated levers.  In that case electoral competition is not aiming at a simple mid-point of dominant public opinion.  Social choice theory then tells us that even a small amount of preference manipulation or agenda-setting can have a huge effect on final outcomes.

Under one plausible view (not Bryan’s as far as I know), politicians have good fundraising and coalition-organizing reasons to persuade voters to accept an essentially one-dimensional political scale.  Mankind’s biological tendencies toward prejudicial alliances, combined with the forces of spontaneous order, support the same.  Political irrationality results, much as Caplan suggests, but the apparently-in-charge voters are as much a shadow play as a unique cause or fulcrum. 

Tristan Tzara!

Addendum: Here is the critical Christopher Hayes review of Bryan’s book.


You fail to take note of a difference between Chavez and Castro. For a long time, Cubans have had only one choice: whether to risk their lives by attempting to vote with their feet or not. With Chavez, it has not yet happened. I don't think Bryan is referring to this type of situation in his analysis of irrational voters.

So, why do Bryan and Tyler want to import lots more irrational Venezuelans to become voters in America?

The classical liberal view of voting was not that people voting was in of itself a moral or effective way of running society - The classical liberal view of voting was that voting was good because political infighting would keep any one political faction from gaining too much power. It was not so much about "empowering the people" (the "people", after all, are "empowered" by default), it was to prevent a king or despot or oligarchy from gaining control of society via the state.

In classical liberalism, the voter did not need to be rational... they just needed to be pitted against other equally irrational voters to cancel each other out.

Of course, in modern society, when the state micromanages virtually every aspect of everyday life, and controls the bulk of GDP, the dynamics have totally changed. The state has become the core institution that dominates everything. The state manages the economy, provides and controls education, health care, transportation... the media is carefully monitored and controlled by the state. Agriculture is subsidize. There are even "family courts" and a strict set of laws to govern child raising, marriage, etc.. Voter irrationality, in this kind of situation, can have catastrophic results.

There is an inverse correlation between how much a place needs a revolution and how well the revolution is likely to work out. America in 1770 didn't really need a revolution, so ours worked out nicely. Latin American countries need revolutions more badly, so their many revolutions seldom work at all.

I thought it was supposed to be Dadaists we've never heard of. Like Zhivko Gorgi.

I had to stop reading Christopher Haye's review when he said: "But this argument puts Caplan in a precarious position. The consensus economic model that he subscribes to—and that forms the worldview of the economists that he cites as definitive—is grounded on the assumption that people are rational."

I'm not even an economist and this drives me nuts. Certainly economists are like any other kind of scientist and are aware that any assumptions contained within their theory may lead them astray, and so check their theory against the evidence, and create a modified, or qualified theory when necessary? The first thing I think of when I see a theory, like, say,

F = G * m1 * m2 / r^2
(the force of gravitation),

is, hey, I wonder if that number is *exactly* 2? and, what are the error bars on the constant G? Certainly economists do this as well?

There's something wrong with voting "irrationally"? Then long may such irrationalisty prevail. I don't know about you, but I value my freedom to vote any damn way I please.

And Bryan Caplan purveys himself as an expert on what's rational and what's not? And his PhD in Rationalisty comes from which institution exactly? Oh, that's right: there is no such field of study.

Really, though, I'm just trying to prevent myself from guffawing at the ego of anyone who'd present himself in that way ...

This comment comes via Professor Claire Hill, my neighbor and friend, who encouraged me to write after I went ballistic after reading Gary Bass's review in the NYT yesterday of Caplan's book.

There's another way of looking at why people are disengaged. It's because the opportunity costs are too high. Public processes are not designed to value citizen involvement; they are the province of experts and special interests. After lots of interviewing and a survey, we were stunned to find that people are very thoughtful and reflective..they are paying attention. But they don't think that the opportunitues to weigh in are useful or meaningful.

Having served in a varity of high level posts in local government, I heartily concur. What are the options? Attend a public hearing when the outcome is largely a fight between special interests and there's no room for alternative views? Get involved in a long boring task force that produces a report?

Let's take Iraq. Bass writes, as evidence that people are fickle, that the public has changed its mind on Iraq. Rather than viewing Americans’ turnabout on the war as people being weak minded, how about giving them some credit to paying attention to what’s going on? Yes, there was some information to the contrary leading up to the war, but if I recall these people were being called traitors and unpatriotric by the Administration. Congress bought the war hook, line and sinker, and they, the Administration and the media sold the war– there was no public discourse. Hey, even the New York Times apologized for missing the boat on the war. Just where is the American public supposed to get its information if it can’t trust the media or the people it elects?

We need new public processes that give people meaningful opportunities to weigh in, that don't treat them as dunderheads, that provide for a civil exchange of views (as opposed to processes that divide and conquer). Are there a lots of people who just don't give a damn? Sure. But there are many who do care...and they're just waiting to be asked (e.g., check out or a short video at

Being stubborn does'nt mean that you are irrational.Public voters can be manipulated easily if they don't understand what is beneficial for themselves but that is the duty of the countries legislature to make everybody aware of the vote that is being dedicated by them and its importance in deciding their own future.

But as far as stubborness is concerned i think stubborn people don't vote at all.

I think Voters are influenced by too many things before they decide good or bad.

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